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The other Michelle Obama in the White House

Last updated on: January 7, 2012 11:18 IST

The other Michelle Obama in the White House

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All has not been well between Michelle Obama and her husband's close aides, according to a new book which claims tension grew so severe at one point that then Press Secretary Robert Gibbs even "cursed" the First Lady behind her back in an outburst during a staff meeting.

 

The book The Obamas by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor details Michelle's initial reluctance to move into the White House after her husband took office for the sake of her children, the "confinement" she felt living in the "monument-museum-office-military compound-terrorist target-home" and her friction with top Obama aides including former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

 

Kantor interviewed more than 30 current and former aides of President Barack Obama and some of the first couple's closest friends for the book which says Michelle has been an "unrecognised force in her husband's administration and that her story has been one first of struggle, then turnaround and greater fulfilment."

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Image: Michelle Obama
Photographs: White House Photos

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To Michelle, some of her husband's staff members were too "insular and not strategic enough".

She was particularly unhappy when the Democrats lost Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in January 2010, and was "privately fuming, not only at the president's team, but also at her husband," Kantor said in an article in the NYT.

 

Matters came to a head in September 2010 when after a summer of "infighting" throughout the White House's West Wing, "things finally exploded."

 

It was about a French book which said Michelle had told Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House was "hell."

 

Gibbs saw the news, "a potential disaster", and straight away went into damage-control mode. Gibbs asked the first lady's aides to confirm if she had said anything even close to what was reported in the book. He got no for an answer.

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Image: File photo of First Lady Michelle Obama with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy


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Gibbs "then fought the story back for hours, having the book translated and convincing the Elysee Palace to issue a denial. By noon the potential crisis had been averted."

However during Emanuel's early morning staff meeting the next day, another Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said the first lady had "concerns" about the White House's response to the book.

"All eyes turned to Gibbs, who started to steam," Kantor says, citing several people present at the meeting.


Kantor goes on to say that "Gibbs yelled" using "expletives" and said "That's not right, I've been killing myself on this, where's this coming from?"

 

Gibbs "interrogated Jarrett, whose calm only seemed to frustrate him more. The two went back and forth, Jarrett unruffled, Gibbs shaking with rage. Finally, several staff members said, the press secretary cursed the first lady -- colleagues stared down at the table, shocked -- and stormed out."

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Image: File photo shows President Barack Obama with former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes


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Gibbs has acknowledged the outburst but said he had misdirected his rage and accused Jarrett of making up the complaint.

After the book incident, he "stopped taking her (Jarrett) at all seriously as an adviser to the president," Gibbs said, adding, "Her viewpoint in advising the president is that she has to be up and the rest of the White House has to be down."

Kantor said Michelle was sometimes "harder on her husband's team than he was, eventually urging him to replace them."

 

The first lady never confronted the advisers directly but they found out about her displeasure from the president.

 

"She feels as if our rudder isn't set right," Obama confided, according to aides.

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"Her strains with the advisers were part of a continuing debate over what sort of President Obama should be, with Obama reinforcing his instincts for ambitious but unpopular initiatives like the overhaul of health care and immigration laws, casting herself as a foil to aides more intent on preserving congressional seats and poll numbers," Kantor said.

 

Other advisers described a grim White House situation where a president's agenda had hit the rocks, a first lady disapproved of the turn the White House had taken, and a chief of staff chafed against her influence.

The book also states that initially, Michelle had considered postponing her move to the White House for months as she wanted to remain in Chicago until the end of the school year, giving her children more time to adjust.

 

Apart from the "confinements and obligations" of the White House, the first lady was also "deeply frustrated and insecure" about her place in her new residence.

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Being a Harvard-trained lawyer, she had given up her career for "what initially seemed to her a shapeless post."

The book also describes friction between Michelle and then Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, now Mayor of Chicago.

 

At one time, she wanted to help sell the health care overhaul in 2009. "Figure out how to use me effectively," she told her aides, "this is my priority."

 

Emanuel, however, told colleagues that his "battles as a staffer" with former first lady Hillary Clinton had taught him to "steer clear" of first ladies.

 

He "mostly avoided" Michelle.

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Image: File photo of Emanuel with Obama


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"The tense relationship between the East and West Wings remained a muted matter, but the strains eventually became deep enough that the first lady's team held a retreat in the winter of 2010 to discuss the problem."

 

Michelle was particularly upset with Emanuel when in 2010 in exchange for a key vote on an energy bill, Emanuel, without asking the first lady's permission, promised a Florida congressman that she would appear at an event.

"Annoyed, she (Michelle) attended the event, but registered her broader disapproval by refusing to commit to campaigning for the midterms."

Kanton said Michelle's reluctance to campaign left Emanuel "incredulous."

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